Taking Judgment Out of Uninvolved or Unavailable Parents and Families

As parent and family program professionals, I imagine most of us thoroughly enjoy the families that are actively involved and engaged.  We are thrilled when they register for our events (and actually show up!), grateful when they provide donations to our programs and inspired when they want to connect with other families. These parents and families remind us of our “why.”  Realistically, we can’t expect everyone to provide this form of support. Therefore, I want you to take a moment to consider these questions:

  • How often do you think about the parents and families that are not on campus, in your email inbox, or calling your office?  
  • What are you doing to ensure all parents and families know your program exists?
  • What underlying assumptions do you have about uninvolved or unavailable parents and families?

With those questions in mind, I would like to share a personal story on why I strive to reach these seemingly uninvolved or unavailable parents and families. Additionally, since most of us are about to enter new student orientation season, I will provide some ideas on how you can bridge the gap and start connecting with these families.

My parents were always very hands-off with me about school. I never caused any trouble or brought home bad grades, which means they never had a specific reason to intervene on my behalf. I was enrolled in all AP courses, on the varsity tennis team and varsity bowling league, part of the cast or crew for every theater production, and worked part-time at the local mall. I’m sure my parents would have willingly helped me with school if I asked for it, but I stubbornly prided myself on figuring things out on my own. Nonetheless, my parents loved me and trusted me enough to know I could care for myself.  

No one’s path to success is without hurdles or setbacks, but being a first-generation college student adds another challenging element to an already difficult system to navigate. This is normally where familial support can fill in the gaps, even if they don’t have first-hand knowledge of the college planning and transition process. Nevertheless, when I finally started to take college planning more seriously in my last semester of my senior year, I understood why my parents were not eagerly inserting themselves into the process. Little did I know that the last semester of my senior year was also going to be one of the darkest periods of my life. All within a span of 5 months, my parents ended their almost 19-year marriage, I got my acceptance letter from the University of North Texas (UNT), I turned 18, graduated from high school with honors, and my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.  My parents were dealing with too many personal issues to be actively involved or engaged in my college transition.  

I did not tell my parents about new student orientation because a) I didn’t know UNT even had a parent orientation; b) I wouldn’t have brought both of them because they were not on good terms, obviously; and c) I certainly wasn’t going to invite one parent over the other and cause another fight. My parents never called UNT on my behalf to address a problem or complete a task for me. I filled out the FAFSA on my own after they provided me with their tax information. They never attended an event on campus or sent me care packages. However, they were always a phone call away and we visited over holidays and weekends. They supported me in the best way they knew how, and I could never blame them for not doing what other parents were doing.  

Your students may be getting a ton of love and support from their families behind the scenes. Just because you do not see it happening right in front of you doesn’t mean it isn’t happening at all. I’ve been in my role as Assistant Director of Parent and Family Services for a little over a year. Because of my parent’s situation, I lean towards giving families the benefit of the doubt when others may have a judgment towards them. We do not know what is going on in their lives and why they may appear to be uninvolved or unavailable. For example, if you see a parent drop their student off on move-in day and immediately drive off, consider these scenarios:

  • The parent has a younger child at home;
  • The parent has another student in college moving in on the same weekend;
  • The parent has to work extra hours to ensure the tuition bill is paid on time;
  • The parent is ill and cannot be in crowded spaces.

Even though I have been in my role for a short time, I quickly noticed that most of the families that contacted my office for help met me at orientation. My mission within this next academic year is to expand my reach to more families, so here are some ideas I’ve come up with to accomplish that goal:

  • Connect with Admissions to see how you can be involved in the recruitment process
    • If Admissions is already communicating with families, see if they will share your contact information with them.  Better yet, they may allow you to craft a welcome message for incoming families.
  • Invite families to orientation
    • If your office is not in charge of registration or communication for parent and family orientation, see if the orientation team would let you send an email to students and invite their families to orientation. However, it would be important to know if guests are allowed at orientation and if your orientation requires an overnight stay. If you do have an overnight orientation, you’ll need to be prepared for families to reach out about accommodations.
    • If you cannot send an email before orientation, ask if you can include your program flyer in the student check-in bag or have stacks of flyers available at the check-in station.
  • Promote your program to stakeholders on campus
    • In my opinion, reaching out to academic advising is low-hanging fruit. All students have an Academic Advisor and are likely required to meet with one to register for classes. We all have heard a complaint about FERPA causing a conflict between families and a staff member, but Academic Advisors likely face this more frequently than others. I was an Academic Advisor at my institution for almost 5 years and have many beloved colleagues who supported my transition to Student Affairs. Now, any time a parent or family member comes to their office, they always talk about my program and provide my contact information. Not only does this help the Advisor because they have another ally to educate families on FERPA, but it also helps the family and student feel more supported by the institution.  
  • Obtain contact information for current students
    • Every institution is different, but you could see about obtaining contact information for currently enrolled students. If funding is not a concern, mailing a postcard, welcome letter, or even some custom family swag would be a great way to engage those families.  Alternatively, because we all know that budgets are limited, you could send a mass email to the students about your program and include your contact information. To take it a step further, you could target specific populations of students if you want to make the message more personal.

I hope that my story and advice will help you re-imagine what family engagement can look like.  Ultimately, no family is out of reach, and your work matters enough to be known to all families.  Remember, just because they are not there doesn’t mean they do not care.

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